Tag Archives: mentalization

Peter Fonagy on Metallization

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Peter Fonagy and his colleagues have introduced and elaborated the concept of metallization. Metallization includes the developmental capacity to reflect on one’s inner life and to imagine the inner life of another person. It is central to important other capacities such as the capacity of empathy and self control. The relationship between empathy and metallization is easy to understand in that you have to be able to imagine what another person is thinking and feeling in order to empathize with him. Self control, on the other hand, takes more explanation. As the child develops the capacity to reflect on what is going on inside of himself, he begins to be able to make sense of the motivations for his actions and also for the consequences of his actions on others. He sees a playmate cry when he pushes him or when he grabs a toy away from her. With the help of an adult caregiver, he realizes that his action caused distress to the other child. Then he starts to make a connection between his inner desire to have the toy or his anger at the other child and his action of pushing or grabbing. He also realizes that if he wants to play with the other child, he will have to control his impulse to push or to grab. All of this cognitive and emotional activity is scaffolded by the caregiving relationship and grows into a competency for self reflection and also for self control. Fonagy and his group call this competency metallization.

All individuals, including adults, lose their capacity for mentalizing when they are highly stressed. The individual’s ability to mentalize therefore depends both on the robustness and flexibility of their developmental competency and also on the stress in their lives.

Metallization distinguishes humans from other apes. Animals are very poor at recognizing whether an act of a conspecific is due to serendipity or is rooted in intention, wish, belief, or desire. The capacity to recognize these intention, wishes, desires, and beliefs of the other person is sometimes called “metallization”. It has been argued to account for the major difference between humans and other apes.” (Fonagy, 2014). (Peter says that dogs can mentalize humans but not other dogs. That could explain a lot!)

We all depend on one another to know ourselves. A working definition of mentalization is that of a form of imaginative mental activity, perceiving and interpreting human behavior. Mentalizing is the capacity to see ourselves from the outside and to see others from the inside. It has to do with seeing oneself as an agent, as an intentional being and also seeing others as intentional beings. The capacity to mentalize allows us to create a narrative continuity over time. Mentalization is an integrative framework.

The Development of Mentalization: The newborn has a social brain. She detects and prefers social agents, gazing longer at faces with open eyes and to direct versus averted gaze, showing greater activation of the anterior temporal cortex to voices versus non-voices, and differential activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and insula to happy versus sad voices. The newborn is prepared for mimicry by the mirror neuron systems in the prefrontal and parietal regions, and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate mutuality in the infant-caregiver relationship. In fact, administering oxytocin in the nose makes adults better at reading the expression of others’ intentions.

The Reward Circuits Are More Active in Secure Mothers: The oxytocin levels of mothers whose AAI’s (Adult Attachment Inventory) were read as secure before the birth of their child, went up when they interacted with their children. By contrast, in the case of mothers with “insecure” AAI’s, the oxytocin levels went down. Later on, the pituitary, the part of the brain that generates oxytocin, released more oxytocin in secure mothers. Also, the mesocorticolimbic areas were more active for secure mothers when looking at their babies smiling. All this suggests that the reward circuits are more active in secure moms. Fonagy suggests that this is because when the baby is crying, secure moms have an elevation of activity in the Ventral Striatum, whereas insecure moms do not. Rather, insecure moms have activation in insula (negative memories). Looking at their baby when he is sad makes her sad. You could argue that the absence of oxytocin in insecure moms gives them difficulty mirroring their awareness that it is the baby’s sadness and not theirs. That would make it harder for the baby to manage his sad affect.

Provisional Model for the Developmental Roots of Mentalization : The “secure” mother generates increased oxytocin when interacting with her baby, in association with a more mentalizing (marked-contingent) maternal response to the baby’s distress. The baby perceives the mother’s empathy, while at the same time appreciating that she herself is OK and available to comfort him. This improves the baby’s regulatory state. The evolving capacity of the baby to perceive his mother as having a different mental state from his own is consistent with the development of mentalization and the infant’s resilience. On the other hand, if the mother herself is insecure and generates a reduced level of oxytocin, she makes a “non-mentalizing response” to her infant, reacting not only with her own distress but with an escalating distress response that communicates helplessness. This is not comforting to the infant and may increase his sense of helplessness and fear. He is at risk of not developing the capacity to discriminate between what is in his mind and what is in his partner’s mind, which makes him more vulnerable.

Fonagy referred to a paper in which the maternal oxytocin response predicts mother-infant gaze: in the case of the antenatally secure mother with high oxytocin, the mother looks longer at her infant, especially in the recovery phase of the still face experiment, and there is more imitation of the infant’s intention (Kim, Fonay & Strathearn in press). This is interpreted as the mother’s capacity to tolerate the infant’s distress and is therefore emotionally available to the infant.

Numerous studies reveal the development of an important group of social capacities related to reciprocity, the sharing of mental states, self-awareness, and identification. Joint attention is usually achieved at 9-12 mos. This capacity involves the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior temporal sulcus and is incredibly important. In order for humans to have culture, a shared sense of where they are, they have to develop the idea that when they are looking at the same thing as others in their culture, they are thinking the same thing.

Studies suggest early emergence of the capacities for empathy and mentalizing. In the Baby and Smurf test, the baby’s capacity to put himself in the place of the smurf who has lost its ball is tested. The baby’s sensitivity to the smurf’s situation (the baby saw where the ball went but the smurf did not) is measured in terms of looking time. The baby at 7 months is capable of considering what the smurf believes about the status of the ball (AM Kovacs et al, Science 2011; 330:1830-1834). At 9 months, babies have a sense of fairness, as they demonstrate in an experiment in which of two giraffes one giraffe gets two toys and the other gets only one. Interestingly, it is relative deprivation, not absolute deprivation that predicts outcome. How well we are doing in relation to others around us has a profound influence on outcome.

The Romanian orphanage (orphanages in which the children were essentially deprived of a responsive caregiving relationship) studies show that the age beyond which the influences of deprivation cannot be repaired is between 6-18 mos. Children who were placed in these orphanages at birth and stayed for longer than 6-18 months demonstrated atypical development: signs of autism – reduced imitation, lessened response to name, lower social interest and social smiling, atypical eye contact. On the other hand, deprivation before 6 months (in cases in which the child was placed in a family at 6 months) has surprisingly little consequences.

Peter Fonagy Lecture at IPMH I: Mentalization Based Therapy

MBT (Mentalization Based Therapy) focuses on how the person feels now, rather than on the past. Imagine yourself talking to a client. Try to think about how you would think about the situation the person is describing. When the other person isn’t making sense, it is because he is not bearing in mind the person he is talking to – you. That means he isn’t “mentalizing”.

The therapist makes “simple sound-bite” interventions that are affect-oriented (related to love, desire, hurt, catastrophe, excitement), and focus on the patient’s mind, not on his behavior, nor on his past. MBT relates to a current event or activity, and identifies non-mentalizing as getting in the way of the patient’s stated goals.

Technically, the therapist in MBT notes breaks in the patient’s mentalizing – when the patient starts to talk as if the world is against him and he is the helpless victim, for example – and rewinds the conversation to the moment before the patient stops mentalizing. Suppose the patient is explaining a disagreement with her boss and then says that her boss treats her the way all men treat her, in fact the way you, the therapist, is treating her right now – by not ‘hearing’ her! In fact, she should leave right now since she is just wasting her time in this therapy!” You might then go back to what the boss said to her that morning and explore how it feels the same as what is going on now between you. How is she feeling ‘not heard’ by you? You accept responsibility for contributing in some way you do not yet understand, for generating this terrible feeling in the patient.

In MBT the mind of the patient becomes the focus of the treatment. Your job as therapist is to help the patient learn about the complexities of his thoughts and feelings about himself and others, how that relates to his responses, plus how “errors” in his understanding of himself can lead to actions that cause problems for him. It is not your job to tell the patient how he feels, what he thinks, how he should behave, or what the underlying reasons are. Instead, you are helping him build new competencies for maintaining a self-reflective mind even under the stress of intense affect. Peter recommends adopting a “not knowing” stance, conveying to the patient a sense that mental states are opaque.

In the therapy, the therapist first of all helps the patient become better regulated. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You want to lower arousal as much as possible. Then you validate the patient’s perceptions. Finally, you begin the painstaking work of trying to get the patient to see the situation from another person’s point of view – that is “mentalizing”. Suppose the patient says, “I am just a bad mother.” That is not mentalizing. You stay with what she is saying right here, recognize the self critical feelings are flooding back, and do not turn your attention to the past. If she is not mentalizing when she tells you about herself as a mother, go to another subject and help her regain her more mature perspective, then return to her distress as a mother.

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Friendship: Antidote to Bullying


In this posting, I will discuss the most substantial long-term solution to bullying. The best way to combat bullying is to support the capacity for friendship and children’s development of empathy. Empathy is a function of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability of the child to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and to realize that other people have minds of their own.

For example, the 5-yo boy (let’s call him “Sam”) described above was having trouble imagining the mind of his classmate (“Ben”). I discovered that earlier that day in playground time Sam had been involved in a running game with Ben and some other boys. Ben, who is a fast runner, was leading the pack. Sam has some motor insecurity that has held him back, and he has not developed the strength and skill to keep up with the other boys in running games. I am guessing that he was feeling like a “loser”, and his way of making sense of those “loser” feelings was to perceive Ben as being the cause of his “loser-ness” by claiming to be older than Sam was. Ben actually hadn’t said anything of the sort, but Sam’s feelings were so strong and unmanageable that he completely lost his 5-yo capacity for self-reflection (“mentalization”). He did not link his very sad and angry feelings to having been left in the dust in the running game of minutes before. He really perceived Ben as trying to best him by claiming to be older and thereby causing him to feel bad.

Empathy is a complex competency that begins in the early infant-caregiver relationship when the baby first comes to recognize and resonate with the emotions of the caregiver. Parents and teachers can continue to support the development of empathy by valuing empathic responses, by making “being a good friend” a family (and school) value. If this “family value” is established, parents and teachers can always fall back on it as a support when they are confronting bullying behavior. “In this school, we do not believe in treating others that way.” The reason this kind of explanation is such a showstopper is that you can’t argue with beliefs. Empathy can even be extended to the bully.

I would not call Sam a bully – nor do I think the term is appropriate for such a young child – but his behavior was definitely intimidating to Ben. If called into this situation with Sam puffing out his chest threateningly to Ben and calling him a baby and Ben quaking in his boots, his parent or his teacher might try to scaffold the recovery of Sam’s self-reflection, and therefore his empathy. They might try to help him imagine how Ben felt, and they might even elicit Ben’s help in doing that (“Tell Sam how you felt when he said that to you and stood so close to you”).

However, there is a potential pitfall. If Sam is too stressed, the adult’s words – kind and helpful though they might be – will not sink in. Sam cannot take in information when he is dysregulated. The kind words – if they are addressing the source of his distress – might even escalate his dysregulation, The adult must first help Sam (and Ben) calm down, feel safe, and then – maybe twenty minutes later – try again. There are many good children’s books that have friendship as a theme. Some classics are George and Martha, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Freddy the Pig.

Brooks, Walter R, Freddy the Detective, Overlook Juvenile Press, 2010.

Marshall, James, George and Martha (especially, the story of “Split Pea Soup”), HMH Books for Young Readers, 1974.

MacDonald, Betsy, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harper Collins, 2007.